The baseball hearings continued last week, though Casey Stengel had abandoned politics and was devoting his political acumen to a Yankee home stand in the Stadium.
Something even more arresting than Casey dominated the hearings—the television camera. That omnipresent, noncommittal, one-eyed baseball watcher was not on the stand, though it might well have been, since most of the testimony and all of the conflict concerned it.
Commissioner Ford Frick spoke for baseball; he urged that baseball be given the right to control (i.e., if necessary, restrain) the trade in its televised product. "We have got to be able to handle this problem," Frick said, "or within 10 years there will be no television problem because there will be no baseball."
The Department of Justice's Robert Bicks spoke for the Government—and, as he suggested, for the people of the United States. Bicks said that the bill passed by the House and now under study by the Senate (which would exempt professional football, basketball and hockey as well as baseball from the bans of the antitrust laws) "would grant to organized sports the unchecked power to deprive the entire American public of the right to see over television any sports contest."
July 27, 1958
Interestingly enough, there has been mighty little talk in the congressional baseball hearings about the famous "reserve clause," through which baseball binds a player for life to the disposal of the club which first signs him on. Peonage used to be the word for this dread idea, but the ballplayers turning up before Congress these days testify that they do not feel like peons at all. The Justice Department witness found nothing to object to in the reserve clause.
No, the issue is television. Frick says the major leagues themselves cannot survive without the minors to supply talent and continuing local interest and that the minors can't survive if big league broadcasts come booming in, unrestrictedly, onto the screens of America.
We share Ford Frick's concern for the future of baseball, though we are far from sharing Frick's gloom. For one thing, TV income promises to make the major league clubs rich enough (as some of them are already) to satisfy all practical dreams of avarice. If the majors need the minors as a source of talent—and the money they spend on farm clubs suggest that they do—then let the majors increase their subsidies to the minors. We also share the Department of Justice's concern for the right of the public to watch sports from their living rooms if they choose. And we think the issues raised by Messrs. Frick and Bicks last week will take a long time to resolve. We suspect that they will be resolved, more or less by the old empirical American method of trial and experience.
That is why we are impressed with two thoughts that have turned up in the Senate hearings. The first comes from ex-Senator Ed Johnson of Colorado, who appeared as a witness. Johnson urged Congress to give baseball its antitrust exemptions—but for a limited trial period of six years. Senator O'Mahoney of Wyoming suggested that, instead of giving baseball a blanket exemption from the antitrust laws, Congress hand baseball an explicit federal charter. Such a charter could be a renewable one, like a driver's license. It could require periodic reports to the Federal Trade Commission and, best of all, could keep baseball where it would be healthy to keep it—under the consistent scrutiny of Congress and the public—while baseball sets about solving the issue Mr. Frick and Mr. Bicks were defining last week.
In short, we think that the owners of organized baseball should be given a chance to prove that they have the ingenuity and public spirit to find a sound TV solution, but with a yellow caution light, not a green light.